BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- Some came by foot, walking miles in mud-soaked jeans and galoshes from cold shelters and barely inhabitable homes. Others carpooled from far-flung cities and boroughs where they had sought refuge. They came bearing small crosses, candles, hymn books and American flags, and squeezed into pews in one of the few familiar spaces left intact after Hurricane Sandy tore through Breezy Point, a tight-knit oceanside community and one of the city's most devastated neighborhoods.
"God is never closer to us than when we suffer or struggle," Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of Brooklyn, told the congregation at St. Thomas More parish, as parts of the crowd wept over their losses and others cheered for hope, strength and resilience. Faith, he said, is what will keep the community together -- and allow it to blossom once again. "We don't have a crystal ball that will tell us how Breezy Point will be rebuilt. We don't know the timeframe. But stay with it. This will happen."
In this largely Catholic neighborhood of Irish-Americans that's home to dozens of firefighters, police officers and electricians, residents gathered on Sunday for Mass at St. Thomas More for the first time since the destruction just days before. They prayed for their loved ones and their flooded homes. In the community where a widespread fire during the storm destroyed at least 80 homes but left no deaths, they gave thanks for the gift of life.
"God was watching, he kept us safe," said Marie Mahoney, whose beachfront house that she has lived in for 47 years with her husband John was nearly destroyed. They had driven 15 miles back to Breezy Point from northern Brooklyn, where they were staying with John's daughter, to receive Communion as they had a week before. It was a short, one-and-a-half-hour respite between hours of working on their own house and the homes of their children. There were insurance calls to make, aid applications to finish, water to pump from unrecognizable living rooms and new jackets to buy. "But we took the time out of our lives come here because this is what gives us hope," Mahoney said. "This is what gives us peace."
On the Rockaway peninsula where Breezy Point sits, on the western end, the Catholic church is the center of several communities. There are nine Catholic churches spread throughout the Rockaways, and families and parish allegiances go back through generations. And while many were whipped by waves of water during the storm, the churches are slowly coming back to life. Despite puddles of mud, no heat and no electricity in several parishes, most held Mass today. At the St. Francis de Sales Catholic school a few miles up the peninsula, the Diocese of Brooklyn had set up the first large-scale relief center in the Rockaways, where everything from toilet paper to fresh meals was available.
At the hundreds of Catholic parishes in New York City and on Long Island, pastors passed out extra collection plates for hurricane victims. Across the Eastern Seaboard, houses of worship paused during services to recognize hurricane victims and collect food, supplies and money to help with relief.
But at St. Thomas More, where about 60 residents escaped the first night of the storm by sleeping in the church's choir loft, the destruction will take months, and possibly years, to fade away. The Rev. Msgr. Michael Curran, the church's pastor, recalled that in the storm's aftermath, some churchgoers had begun to ask him what they did wrong to go through such an experience. Why, some asked, would God do this? There's no answer to those kinds of questions, he said.
"We take strength from our faith. There is no explanation for hurricanes or floods. But Christ went through suffering and he rose again," Curran said, while surveying the remnants of flood damage in the sanctuary. "For us, literally out the ashes rises hope."
Ingrid Seunarine stood outside the concrete building, looking for ways she could do her part to bring out that hope. Seunarine, the director of bereavement services for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens, held an iPad, ready to take appointments for counseling sessions. Many of the counselors she would typically work alongside live in Breezy Point and are now the ones neeing "a hand, a shoulder and a hug," said Seunarine, who had also come to pray for those suffering.
"God is good. You can't give up," she said, pointing to a black bag she carried on her shoulder that the charity had distributed. Written on it in capital letters was the word "HOPE."
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